After making three savory recipes from Molly on the Range, I decided it was time to indulge in something sweet! I attempted to make the tahini blondie bars that are featured in the “Tahini Blondie Ice Cream Sandwiches” recipe. I only made the blondies (didn’t assemble them into ice cream sandwiches), though, because it has been really cold where I live (like 15-25 degrees F)! Definitely not ice cream weather!
This recipe is straightforward. All you have to do is mix your dry ingredients together, mix your wet ingredients together (in a separate bowl), and then add the wet mixture to the dry. But even in a straightforward recipe, there is still room for error! My error was this: I assumed that the full amount of tahini (as listed in the ingredients section) went into the batter – when, actually, some of it is supposed to be reserved for ice cream sandwich assembly (which I didn’t even do).
The result was that I had nearly double the necessary amount of tahini in my batter, making it more like cookie-dough than brownie-batter. The final bake was kind of crumbly, with a consistency somewhere in between cookie and brownie. It was still very good (how can something consisting of tahini, sugar, and butter be bad?), but I wouldn’t say that I actually made Molly Yeh’s tahini blondies.
I want to try this recipe again, especially since I now know what can go wrong (yay, learning from mistakes!). And while I still probably won’t make the full ice cream sandwich recipe anytime soon…I can see how these treats would be absolutely delicious with vanilla ice cream!
The quantity of tahini listed in the ingredients section is meant to be divided: some of it is for the blondie batter, and some of it is for the ice cream.
Happy New Year!!! The celebration of a new year can feel like an artificial way to mark the passing of time…but that being said I truly wish everybody reading this the best in 2020. December moved very quickly for me: wrapping up the last quarter at work and celebrating the holidays with friends, families, and coworkers. I didn’t get as much done as I would have liked (do I ever?) but it was a rewarding month, and 2019 was a rewarding year.
This month, I finished reading The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf. Although dense at times, this biography provided a riveting account of the life of Prussian scientist Alexander von Humboldt, who essentially came up with the concept of ecology. Humboldt was centuries ahead of his time in his hypotheses about nature and the world, and it was amazing to learn just how many famous thinkers and scientists he influenced.
I also read The Wall by John Lanchester, a dystopian fiction novel that imagines what life might be like if serious actions aren’t taken against climate change soon. I personally liked this book (especially the first part) but I completely understand why some people won’t.
Bakes inspired by the books:
I am still so back-logged on bakes. I read a ton of books in November, and my baking never caught up. Early in December, I baked cupcakes inspired by Little Fires Everywhere (a book that I read in early November) – they were chocolate flavored with passionfruit buttercream frosting, and they were delicious!
I also baked chocolate shortbread cookies with chocolate glaze last month, inspired by Ali Wong’s nonfiction book Dear Girls. These cookies were decadent and delicious, and a lot of fun to decorate.
Books in progress/up next:
I am currently reading Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham. The book is a detailed, nonfiction account of the now-infamous Chernobyl nuclear disaster. I didn’t know much about Chernobyl prior to reading this book – other than the fact that it happened – and the book provides fascinating historical context for it.
I would also like to read Circe, Mobituaries, and Girl, Woman, Other this month. I hadn’t planned on reading Circe this year – not even this spring/summer when the book was hot – but it ended up on a lot of peoples’ “top 3 books of 2019” list, so I’m curious to read it and see if it lives up to the hype. Mobituaries is a nonfiction book about people or things that are no longer with us, but who should be remembered. The author hosts an excellent podcast by the same name, so I’m really excited to read the book. And I’m interested in Girl, Woman, Other because I’ve heard very good things about it (including the fact that it won the Booker Prize).
Shout-outs to some great blog posts:
Chaz wrote about his experience participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) – if this is something you are considering, I highly recommend his post which detailed the time and planning that goes into it
Ashely explained the science of herd immunity, and why it makes anti-vaxxer logic so harmful to society
And Aho wrote a lovely piece about the Polish mushroom dumplings known as Uszka (and the preparation that goes into making them)
Last month I read Dear Girls by comedian and actress Ali Wong. The book is a collection of life-lessons that Wong has learned and wishes to share with her daughters. The book covers topics such as dating, travel, and work. The stories are intimate, shocking, often filthy, and pretty funny.
I had mixed feelings about Dear Girls, but one thing that I loved about it was that it’s frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious. I read Dear Girls on an airplane, and couldn’t stop myself from laughing out loud while reading it. Ali Wong is an incredible stand-up comedian (if you haven’t seen her comedy, I recommend the Netflix special Baby Cobra), and also, somehow, just as hilarious as a writer.
At the same time, Dear Girls wasn’t always funny to me. I found myself surprised and even disappointed by some of the perspectives Wong shared in the book. In particular, she makes light of homelessness a lot and also tells a story whose punchline is essentially: “The guy I was dating turned out to have a personality disorder! Good thing he didn’t murder me!” So I really disliked that.
But what really turned me off of this book was the fact that Wong shares all these compelling stories about the difficulty of motherhood, and what it’s like to balance being a mom and having a career…but never mentions the fact she has a nanny! The nanny is only mentioned in passing in the husband’s afterword. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think that there is anything wrong with having a nanny if you have the means, and I don’t think that having a nanny makes you any less of a parent. What I take issue with is the lack of transparency: the barely-mention of having a nanny is dishonest, and makes the book feel insincere.
All in all, I thought that Dear Girls was a funny book, but it’s definitely not for everyone. If you like Ali Wong’s comedy, you will probably like her book (some of the stories are easy to imagine in her voice, which makes them even funnier). However, a few of Wong’s jokes are based upon outdated stereotypes, which is disappointing.
—3 stars out of 5—
The bake: chocolate cookies with chocolate glaze.
With the bake for Dear Girls, I wanted to accomplish two things. First (and perhaps obviously) I wanted to bake something inspired by the bake. And secondly, I wanted to get into the holiday spirit! So I decided to make glitzy sprinkle cookies.
For sprinkle cookies, any cookie recipe and any glaze will work. I decided to make chocolate cookies, because I already had leftover cookie dough in my freezer from the last time I made them. I decided to frost them with chocolate glaze, because I absolutely love a decadent double-chocolate dessert.
These cookies take a while to make – because the dough undergoes two separate chilling periods in the refrigerator – but the rich, chocolatey treats are well worth the wait. And the chocolate glaze on top takes these cookies to the next level; I highly recommend doing the chocolate-on-chocolate. The sprinkles don’t really add anything taste-wise, but they make the cookies look so much more festive and inviting! A glitzy, bold bake for a bold book.
Happy November! While most of 2019 has flown by, October actually seemed to pass at a good pace. It was still a busy month though! Mostly because…I got married! Given that wedding planning is insane and all-consuming in the weeks leading up to the wedding, I am honestly shocked that I managed to get anything else done at all. Let’s reflect back on October:
I finished two books this month (which is honestly two more books than I expected to finish). Lab Girl is a memoir by academic researcher and university professor, Hope Jahren. As a young scientist myself, I loved this book for its honesty about the stress of trying to “make it” as an academic researcher, and also for its beautifully written passages about how trees grow. Frankissstein is a novel that ponders how technology will change life for humankind, and particularly how it will change how we relate to our bodies. Frankissstein was an interesting philosophical read, but at the same time I didn’t particularly care for most of the characters or their “love stories.”
Bakes inspired by the books:
For Lab Girl, I attempted to bake meringues with a lime curd swirl on top. As you might be able to tell from the picture, these meringues were a baking fail. But I posted about them anyway because I wanted to review Lab Girl, and I wanted to own the fact that sometimes my bakes aren’t successful on the first try.
I’m currently reading Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. I resisted this book for a long time – I’m not sure why – but someone recently gifted it to me, and I immediately got sucked in. I already know what I want to bake for this book, and I can’t wait to post.
I also want to read The Invention of Nature and Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis – two books that I had initially planned (unrealistically) to read in October. Also, the comedian Ali Wong recently published a memoir and I might want to read that, too.
Great blog posts of the month:
I read so many great blog posts this month…but my brain was so fried that I forgot to bookmark my favorite posts. So here is ONE post that stuck with me so much, I remember it even without having bookmarked it: a heartwarming story called “Pizza it Forward” from Vee at Millenial Life Crisis.
The book: Frankissstein: A Love Story by Jeanette Winterson.
In the spirit of Halloween and all things strange, I just finished reading Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson. The novel follows two main story lines. First: nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley is inspired to write Frankenstein in the summer of 1816. Then, fast-forwarding two centuries, there is the story of a romance between Ry – a transgender doctor who works in a cryogenics facility – and Victor Stein, an AI specialist dreaming of a future where humans digitally upload their brains to live eternally without bodies. As the novel wades between the two stories, we observe incredible parallels between the story told in Frankenstein, and a not-so-distant future ruled by AI.
My opinions on this book are…all over the place. There were aspects that I liked, and aspects that I didn’t care for…and some things that I have conflicting feelings toward. One thing that I have mixed opinions about is the connection between the two main stories in this novel. I appreciated the parallels between the two main stories…but I wish that Winterson had been more subtle with some of those parallels. For example, Ry and Victor Stein’s story begins at an AI conference in Memphis; at the very beginning of this section, Ry explicitly tells the conference organizer that the conference is in honor of the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. At that point, it felt like Winterson was just beating us over the head with the connection between the two plot lines.
I also wish that the book had been more character-focused. Frankissstein had a strong plot that prodded at interesting philosophical questions…but I felt that it could have used more character development. With the exception of Mary Shelley, I found it hard to understand any of the characters beyond a surface-level, which then made it hard to care what would happen to them.
A praise that I have for Frankissstein is that it touched upon fascinating philosophical issues – particularly, can AI solve the problems of humanity? How will technology continue to transform our world, and what will this mean for the future of humankind? Frankkissstein suggests a world where AI may radically change what life means for humans, yet it also shows that people have been pondering questions about how technology may change society for centuries.
Overall, Frankissstein was a bit of a let-down for me. It is characterized as a love-story, but I didn’t find it particularly romantic (did I miss the point?). I also found most of the characters a bit lacking, and possibly underdeveloped. The plot was interesting, though; and if you like thinking about the future of humanity, this book offers fascinating perspectives on what that may hold.
The bake: chocolate linzer cookies.
Frankisstein is characterized as a love story (the subtitle of the book is literally A Love Story). Although I didn’t find the novel particularly romantic, I decided to roll with this theme, and made a “romantic” dessert. I made chocolate linzer cookies with a cherry jam filling (some were filled with leftover lime curd, too).
To make the cookies, I followed this recipe from Bon Appetit. Instead of making the tahini-chocolate filling (which I’m sure is amazing), I used two fillings that I already had: cherry jam (because chocolate and cherry seems “romantic”) and lime curd (because I had a lot of leftover lime curd that I needed to use).
These cookies take a long time to make because the dough needs to chill in the fridge for a long time…but they are not particularly difficult. And this recipe rewards patience: as long as you follow the recipe (including the chill periods in the refrigerator), the cookies will turn out amazingly! The ingredients are nothing out of the ordinary…but somehow these chocolate cookies taste so rich and decadent. Definitely worth the wait, and definitely something to make for any occasion.
Earlier this month I read Hope Jahren’s memoir, Lab Girl. Dr. Jahren is a professor and researcher at the University of Oslo in Norway, but she has also held professor positions at Georgia State University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Hawaii. Lab Girl tells the story of how Dr. Jahren fell in love with science, and her journey through her battlefield of a career in academia.
When I first started the book, I felt skeptical of the author’s motives (i.e. her “agenda”). I couldn’t shake the feeling that the memoir was a bit self-congratulatory, or perhaps validation-seeking. As the memoir progressed, though, it really grew on me. Dr. Jahren is refreshingly honest about her career in academia: she unflinchingly describes the countless times she’s been dismissed for being a woman in science, the poor living conditions she endured in order to “make it” as a starting professor, and her experiences living with bipolar disorder. These are aspects of academic research that are present for so many grad students, post-doctoral researchers, and professors – yet they are rarely discussed (in fact, my experience in academia was that students are expected to keep their struggles to themselves).
In addition to portraying academic life so honestly, Lab Girl also contains amazingly accessible science writing. My background is actually in plant sciences, but I think that Dr. Jahren’s science-writing could easily be digested by readers from a non-science background. I especially liked Dr. Jahren’s explanations of how seeds germinate, root, and ultimately develop into trees – oftentimes against staggeringly low odds.
Despite my initial skepticism, I loved this book and I have a lot of admiration for Dr. Jahren. I don’t know that her story is exceptionally unique for a female science professor, but I do know that she is incredibly brave to come forth and tell her full story. Her writing style is gorgeous and easy-to-follow, and the book contains a few of my new favorite quotes, including this one: “in the right place, under the right conditions, you can finally stretch out into what you’re supposed to be.”
The bake: (attempted) lime-swirl meringues.
As a scientist myself, I often tell people that what I do in the laboratory is a lot like following a recipe. I have even been known to say that “if you can follow a recipe, you can do a DNA extraction!” Both baking and conducting good laboratory research involve following optimized protocols. As such, I decided that for Lab Girl, I would bake something that required me to follow a “highly optimized protocol” (i.e. a meticulous bake): meringues swirled with lime curd.
I chose meringue and lime curd, because both are tricky to make: just like doing lab-based research, both require that you follow your protocol (i.e. recipe) pretty closely if you want to be successful. I baked these meringues, but instead of using raspberry puree for the swirled topping, I used a homemade lime curd (following this recipe).
Although I have struggled with curd in the past, this one came out very well! I love the bright and zesty flavor of it. Unfortunately, my meringues were not as successful: they took on a weird caramel color in the oven, and they never got crunchy (most likely the result of two mistakes: putting them on too low an oven-rack and over-baking them). I almost didn’t post about this bake, but I decided that – in the spirit of sharing my full story and not just the shiny parts of it – I should write about my baking failures.
I was disappointed with the meringues at first, but like all failed experiments, this was an opportunity to learn and improve. I’m really glad that I also made the lime curd, because now at least one part of the bake was successful. Also, I have a lot of leftover lime curd; I can’t wait to put it to good use in my next bake!
The book: My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite.
The latest book I finished is yet another novel from the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist. My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite tells the story of two sisters: Ayoolah, the beautiful golden child with an unfortunate habit of murdering her boyfriends out of “self defense,” and Korede, the under-appreciated sister who helps Ayoolah clean up her messes (both literally and figuratively).
The premise of this book may seem a bit silly, but My Sister, The Serial Killer is actually a wonderfully thought-provoking novel! It is surprisingly deep, tackling topics of family, loyalty, and how people respond to trauma. But even if you were read this book without looking past the surface, it would still be an interesting and thrilling read. Several intriguing questions are raised early on in the book, and you will find yourself turning pages to resolve these mysteries. For example: Will Ayoolah and Korede be caught for their most recent murder? Will Ayoolah ever be found out for who she really is? Will Korede continue to clean up after and cover for her little sister? Is Ayoolah an innocent person acting in self-defense, or is she a sociopath?
Going beyond the surface, My Sister, The Serial Killer raises much deeper philosophical issues about loyalty and morality. I found myself wrestling with what the “right” thing would be for Korede to do in her situation. Should she be disloyal to family and turn Ayoolah in for her murders? Or should she protect her sister, and in the process knowingly put more men at risk for murder? I am firm in my answer to that question, but I won’t share it here, because…
…the last thing I want to say about My Sister, The Serial Killer was that I was disappointed with the ending. This isn’t to say that the ending felt like a let-down or weak writing on the author’s part. The ending was well-written like the rest of the book – I just happen to strongly disagree with the choice that Korede made. That being said, My Sister The Serial Killer was an intriguing and surprisingly thought-provoking read, and I do not in any way regret reading it.
The bake: lavender macarons.
In My Sister, The Serial Killer, Ayoolah (the serial killer) is constantly being courted by men, and there are several scenes where suitors show up at her house with flowers. In tribute to that, I decided to bake something floral. Floral desserts are often seen as feminine and dainty, too, which makes a floral bake the perfect antidote to the sinister novel of My Sister, The Serial Killer.
The specific bake floral bake that I decided on was lavender macarons! How lovely and delicate and unlike the novel that inspired this bake! I followed this recipe for the macarons, but instead of making the honey buttercream I just filled the macaron shells with raspberry jam.
Macarons are notoriously difficult, but this recipe does an excellent job of spelling out the steps needed to bake them successfully. Some of my macarons cracked, and not all of them achieved “feet” at the base of the cookie…but they taste so good! Macarons are normally quite sweet, and the addition of lavender brings a pleasant sharpness to the dessert. I suspect I’ll make this recipe many more times in the future!
After a crazy two weeks of holiday festivities (and then another week of recovery from post-holiday fatigue), I finally finished reading Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone. This non-fiction book follows author Juli Berwald’s quest to answer the question: how will global warming impact jellyfish populations? The book is a neat compilation of jellyfish research, but it’s also “part memoir, part travelogue,” (to quote NPR journalist Brian Castner), and ultimately a brilliantly written call to action to do something about our warming planet.
Spineless essentially starts out as a comprehensive summary of jellyfish science. After the introduction, each of the first ten chapters focuses on a different aspect of jellyfish biology, including the jellyfish life cycle, genetics, and senses. If you get turned off by overcomplicated, jargon-filled science writing – fear not! – Juli Berwald’s writing style is concise and accessible. Each chapter on the biology of jellyfish is so clearly and gorgeously written that I constantly found myself gushing and awing over how fascinating jellyfish are.
In addition to being nicely written, Spineless is also easy to follow as a story (which is especially impressive given that it’s science non-fiction). The book is easy to follow because Juli Berwald frames the entire story from her perspective: an outsider to the world of jellyfish, on a journey to learn as much as she can about these mysterious animals. And she takes us (the readers) on that journey with her: we go on plane rides and road trips, take tours of aquaria and marine laboratories, learn how to prepare jellyfish as food, and even dive beneath the seas with her. It’s seriously compelling.
As a book about jellyfish, Spineless is fascinating. But the most impressive thing about the book is that it gradually shifts to tell a different story: that of our rapidly changing planet. It’s hard to write an interesting global warming book; many Americans are desensitized to the issue, even among those who agree that global warming is real and a major threat to our existence. But Berwald skillfully eases her readers into that big picture. By first getting us to care about jellyfish, Juli Berwald is able to slowly shift the story to one of how global warming is affecting jellyfish, and then – how it is affecting humanity.
To summarize, Spineless was amazing. It is intellectually stimulating (yet still accessible to readers of any background), narratively compelling, and it ultimately has an inspirational message. I was surprised at how much I loved this book.
The bake: jelly box cookies.
To celebrate reading Spineless, I wanted to bake something that incorporated jelly. When I was thinking about jelly desserts, hamantaschen (triangle shaped cookies with a sweet filling in the center) immediately came to mind.
For the hamantaschen dough, I followed this recipe by Tori Avey and added store-bought raspberry jelly. I found the dough incredibly sticky, and had to add at least a quarter cup of flour before it become workable. I also changed the shape of the cookies, because the triangle shaped hamantaschen are associated with the Jewish holiday of Purim (which will not occur until late March this year). Instead of triangles, I made pinwheels and squares. I thought the squares were an especially cute idea, because Berwald frequently references a type of jellyfish called “box jellies” in her book; my square shaped cookies were jelly boxes!
BUT a cute idea does not automatically translate into a good bake! From the sticky dough, to then rolling the dough evenly, to adding the right amount of jam to each cookie, to shaping the damn things – this bake was really tough. Many of the cookies ended up either: overbaked, irregularly shaped, oozing with jam, or more than one of the above. Maybe it’s because I haven’t baked in a while, or maybe this recipe is just tricky? I don’t know. Despite all of that, the cookies do taste very nice, so I’ll still count this as somewhat of a win.
My second Books and Bakes project was MWF seeking BFF, Rachel Bertsche’s true account of her experience trying to find a new best friend in a new city. As someone who lives on the opposite coast from my oldest and closest friends, I was intrigued by the idea of this book. Specifically, I wondered: could Bertsche’s story give me the perspective needed to make new best friends as an adult?
I have to admit that I was skeptical of Rachel Bertsche at first. To start, her attitude at the beginning of the book struck me as excessively judgmental: she had so many qualifications about who she did and didn’t consider to be “friend material.” Also, she admits at the beginning of the book that she does already have friends in Chicago, just not best friends. I wondered why she was aggressively pursuing new friends instead of attempting to deepen the relationships she already had – were her current friends not “best friend material?” There was also an insensitive joke about Alzheimer’s disease that rubbed me the wrong way.
Despite my initial reservations, this book turned out to be a pleasant and eye-opening read. Bertsche becomes aware of her judgmental attitude early on and resolves to be more open-minded about making friends. By the middle of the book, she develops meaningful friendships with women that she initially would have written off, and even reconsiders her notion of what a “BFF” should be. Toward the end of the journey, Bertsche stops fixating on what other women bring to the table and instead focuses on her own tendencies, acknowledging and improving on her shortcomings as a friend.
One of my favorite things about MWF seeking BFF was the juxtaposition of Bertsche’s journal-like reflections of her friend-dates with scientific studies on friendships and relationships. The presentation of research findings added depth to this book: Bertsche’s conversation with an authority on loneliness and the importance of relationships, for example, elevates the story from a journal about going on friend-dates to a reflection on how to find meaningful connection with others. It was these well-summarized snippets of social science research that had me deeply considering my own relationships: do my friends and I generally share similar values?, how can I become a better conversationalist and “click” with people more easily?, who are my “fossil friends?”
Overall, I enjoyed this book. My initial skepticism was occasionally re-sparked by insensitive or problematic comments like Bertsche’s proclamation that she would love it if her one of her new best friends happened to be black, or her use of the phrase “separate but equal” to describe keeping her marriage separate from her friendships. That being said, I still learned a lot from this book (in general, I think you can learn from most people, even people who are in some ways problematic). I realized how much I appreciate my long-distance friends and initiated conversations with people I hadn’t talked to for a while, and I also reflected on how I can become a better friend. I guess you could say that MWF seeking BFF took me on two journeys: Bertsche’s and my own.
The bake: macarons with raspberry jam filling.
Early on in MWF seeking BFF, Bertsche attends a “cookie exchange” with a new friend: the premise of the event is that each attendee brings 3 dozen cookies, then at the party people socialize and eat and take home a variety of cookies. While Bertsche has to actively talk herself into attending this type of event (overcoming her biases toward moms in the suburbs and “Suzy Homemakers”), I would greet an invitation to a cookie-exchange with a loud and whole-hearted “YES!” I absolutely love baking, especially for others, and I am also a fan of bonding over food.
So my bake for MWF seeking BFF is the 3 dozen cookies that I would bring to a hypothetical cookie exchange (note to self: host a cookie exchange). I went with macarons, because they are something that I’ve wanted to attempt for over a year now. I followed this comprehensive macaron recipe from Tasty and filled them with store-bought raspberry jam.
When I say that I followed the recipe, I mean that I followed it to a T. I separated my egg-whites by hand, processed and sifted my dry ingredients, and did the “figure 8 test” to determine if my batter was ready to pipe. It was so much work, but y’all, it was worth it. Although some of my cookies cracked a bit on top (my oven runs a bit hot, and too-high temperature will crack macarons), these came out amazingly well for my first attempt at macarons! I will certainly make these cookies again, maybe to take to a cookie-exchange with a friend.